burnout prevention

Do you suffer from church burnout?

You can't escape stress; it's an integral part of life. All you can do is learn to manage it, avoid it when possible, and recognize when there's too much of it. Folks often confuse stress with burnout, yet there are very rigid differences between the two:


     • is characterized by over engagement;

     • includes over reactive emotions;    

     • affects your level of physical energy;

     • can be best understood as a loss of fuel and energy;

     • produces panic, phobia, and anxiety-type disorders;

     • results in a depression produced by the body's need to protect itself;

     • produces a sense of urgency and hyperactivity as well as disintegration;

     • can kill you.


     • is a defense mechanism characterized by disengagement;

     • causes emotions to become blunted;

     • causes emotional damage;

     • produces demoralization;

     • can best be understood as a loss of ideals and hopes;

     • produces a sense of helplessness as well as paranoia and detachment;

     • can't kill you, but will make life seem unworthy of your time.

Why is Ministry so Stressful?

Only you can answer that question for yourself, but according to Churchlink.com, the reasons are plentiful:

     • the disparity between expectations and reality;

     • lack of defined boundaries resulting in the perception that tasks are never truly done;

     • conflict of being a leader and a servant simultaneously;

     • intangible rewards; how do you know you're making progress? what are your standards of measurement?;

     • inability to produce win-win situations;

     • administration overload;

     • multiplicity of roles;

     • constant exposure to the negative side of people's lives in your role as counselor;

     • working with people you had no say in hiring and who may not be suitable for the task;

     • this list is virtually endless.

Because of these and countless other reasons, pastors are in a high-risk group when it comes to burnout. You are constantly on the go, in demand, and juggling to balance a stressful workload with some semblance of a personal life. When it gets to be too much, something's got to give, and usually it's your emotional and/or physical health.

What to Look For...

Mothers instinctively learn to honor the integrity of the body while giving birth; pastors need to listen to their bodies as well. Dr. Arch Hart, Professor of Psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary, encourages clergy to be aware of the following symptoms of Burnout:

     • belief you are no longer effective as a pastor;

     • treating yourself and others in an impersonal way;

     • withdrawal from responsibilities (detachment);

     • avoidance of interpersonal contacts;

     • a feeling of being beaten

In addition, researcher Christina Maslach identifies these symptoms:

     • a sense of helplessness and inability to find resolution to conflict;

     • cynicism about the world in general;

     • a reduced sense of reward that leads to resentment in your vocation.

And Finally, What You Can Do?

As is always the case, prevention is key. Here are some suggestions provided by health and spiritual experts:


Always. You know how well it works.

Join a support group.

Your peers will understand you without your having to explain yourself.

Eat healthy and get enough sleep.

Easier said than done, for certain. But while God is providing nourishment for your soul, you need to provide nourishment for your body and mind.

Schedule regular time off.

Even if it's only 2 hours a week, you'll see instant results. Put it on your calendar and protect that time as closely as you do time with your family.

Take a personal audit.

Reassess your goals and abilities. Reprioritize your life. Acknowledge your gifts, and admit that you need help in some areas. If you've been comfortable in your space for too long, maybe it's time to push the envelope and grow a bit. If we're open to opportunities for growth as we journey, we outgrow points of view and attitudes along the way.


When you have a moment, take slow, deep breaths and exhale through your nose. While sitting at your desk, roll your shoulders and neck. Tighten each set of muscles, one at a time, from your feet up to your head. Count to five and then release. Consider taking up yoga. It can work wonders for finding your center and helping your body relax even in the midst of stress.

Learn to say No.

This is a biggie, and pastors are famous for not having this word in their vocabulary. Remember, there's only one Almighty, and it isn't you. You can say No without guilt.

Have fun.

If you have children, spend some time with them, not as a parent, but as a peer. Get muddy. Roll in the sand. Go sledding. Eat with your fingers. Wake them up to lie under the night sky and discover the stars. And laugh. Laughing uses more calories than you might think, and it just plain feels good.

If you take on a new responsibility, first get rid of an old one.

Balance is key. (This rule doesn't apply to having kids; if you have another, it's a good idea to keep those you already have!)

Establish a regular exercise program.

This doesn’t have to an overbearing and too-rigorous effort. Be realistic. Start modestly and don’t let your efforts throw everything else out of balance. Perhaps, just start walking a block or to on a daily basis, as part of lunch, or between your daytime responsibilities and evening meetings.

Take inventory of, and establish a workable plan for, your spiritual formation.

Your inner life should also be well-balanced and approached holistically.  Prayer and Bible reading should be partners with other spiritual practices. Which ones? What are your needs, areas of concern, unfulfilled passion and hopes? The possibilities are almost endless but a few of the classical practices enjoyed by God’s people through the ages include:

Other possibilities for spiritual practice may include the following. Please note though, just because you do something doesn’t mean it is a spiritual practice, ...yet.  How would you enter into a practice in a way that reconnected you to Spirit, to community, to healthy and life-giving relationship with God, with creation and with other people?:

     • keeping silence

     • journaling

     • creating poetry

     • cooking

     • gardening

     • dancing / movement (see the following web site as one example:  http://www.interplay.org)

     • ______you fill in the blank______________       

Remember, you can best serve others by taking care of yourself, so make your health a priority.

(Stress and burnout can take a serious toll on your health. Please do not substitute the information in this article for professional medical advice.)


Source Note:  

Much of this information (especially most of page one, and many of the ideas for prevention on page two, originated from an email article by Clergy Financial Services (www.clergysupport.com) of Loveland, Colorado. Significant additions to the information were made by The Rev. Warren Lynn, Director of the Office of Search and Call for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). You may contact Warren at wlynn@dhm.disciples.org.

*A wonderful resource to help begin consideration of these (and other) practices is a book edited by Dorothy C. Bass, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People; there is also a companion study guide for this book. You will find similar information on the following web site:  www.practicingourfaith.org

• meditation / receptive and centering prayer

     (see Grace Brame’s book, Receptive Prayer: A Christian Approach to Meditation)

• sabbath keeping

     (see Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest)

• honoring the body

     (see Stephanie Paulsell’s book, Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice)

• care for creation

     (see the United Nation’s, Earth Charter)

• moderation

     (see Bill McKibben’s book, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age)

• the practice of peace

     (see Harrison Owen’s book, The Practice of Peace;

       and Joel Goldsmith’s, Practicing the Presence)

• walking the labyrinth

     ( see the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress’ book, Walking A Sacred Path)

• hospitality*

• testimony*

• singing*

• discernment*

• forgiveness*

• household economics*